Trinity’s ties to Freemasonry forge a strong heritage

Exploring the connections between Trinity and the enigmatic organization

The role played by the Freemasons in Trinity College is much more than just a matter of historical trivia, but is something that is very present and indeed essential as part of some students’ daily lives.

Freemasons have long been met with a mixed reception from the public eye. For all of their charitable deeds, of which they certainly do carry out many, they are nonetheless scorned for their associations with a culture of exclusivity and elitism. Perhaps this is to be expected for a historically secretive fraternal organisation with an origin that’s uncertain, but with theories ranging from Ancient Egypt to Medieval England. The Freemasons, who have many thousands of members based in Lodges all around the world, are eager to shake off these criticisms, and emphasise that their goal is to “make good men better”, no matter their religious, political, or class backgrounds. Despite this, many still feel uneasy about the group, concerned about shady dealings and mysterious activities that they may be involved in. 

It has often been pointed out, generally with a wary suspicion, that the Grand Lodge of Ireland (the island’s HQ for Freemasonry) is situated just footsteps away from Leinster House. Whether this location is indeed a conspiratorial hint towards the real seat of power, or just a geographical coincidence in a notoriously cramped city, the distrust held by people surrounding the Masons is a significant problem for them. Last year in response to an article highlighting the presence of two Freemason’s Lodges within Westminster, the English Freemasons took out full page advertisements defending themselves in the Daily Telegraph, the London Times, and the Guardian. Tired of the “stigma” and “discrimination” its members have faced, the Freemasons are looking to move past old associations with secret and mystery, and towards an approach that is much more open and friendly.

If we are to mention noteworthy neighbours, however, we could not forget Trinity is also just a stone’s throw from the Grand Lodge. No matter what may be said about any links between the Freemasons and the goings on within the Dáil or Westminster, the links between The Freemasons and Trinity are undoubtedly significant and historic. There are two Irish Lodges connected with College: University Lodge No 33 which was established in 1871, and Trinity College Lodge No 357 established shortly afterwards in 1874, apparently due to large numbers in the first. The two Lodges have “a long history of interconnectedness,” says  Eoin Pluincéid, the Worshipful Master of the Trinity College Lodge. They do not hold their meetings on campus, but hold them in the Grand Lodge like all but one of the other 30 odd Dublin based Lodges, the exception being the Dalkey Lodge. 

On top of this, Pluincéid also sheds some light on the Trinity Manuscript, a piece of writing found among the papers of famed Irish physician and Trinity student Sir Thomas Molyneux. In this manuscript there is a description of the “three degrees”. These degrees are an important part of Masonic ritual, in which the degrees are passed in accordance with the moral lessons you are said to have learnt. Listed in order of value, they are: Apprentice, Journeyman or Fellow, and Master Mason. Although the description in the Manuscript is quite schematic – it is dated to 1711, 14 years before Irish Freemasonry was officially established in 1725 – there is little room for doubt then that the links between Trinity and Freemasonry go far back, but this is not the oldest link to the college to be found.

Some employers until recently used to ask whether staff were Freemasons, but would not dream of asking if they were gay, Jewish, left-handed or from an ethnic minority, of course.” 

The Archivist for the Grand Lodge, Rebecca Hayes, was able to provide some further insight into Trinity’s association with Freemasonry. Hayes passed on information about the “Trinity Tripos”, a partial text dated back to 1688 and currently held in the University Library. This text was a satirical speech given to the Fellows and heads of the college, which it has been argued may have been authored by one of Trinity’s best known alumni, Jonathan Swift. What was particularly noteworthy about this speech was that it was filled with references to the Freemasons and their activities, indicating a common knowledge of the organisation and its “secrecy and benevolence” between the speaker and the university’s figureheads. This is now going back 37 years before the Freemasons were said to have had their first meeting in Ireland. It seems perhaps Trinity was an early foothold for the organisation on the island.

In modern times the activities of these Trinity Lodges is more everyday. Trinity College Lodge has a Twitter account which has posted recent updates such as pictures of freshly baked bread, as well as informing us that they’ve been working on the first ever Irish translations of Masonic ritual. The latter point may stand out as unusual, as this was a Lodge of which Edward Carson was once a member. A response to this peculiarity could be that the Freemasons explicitly describe themselves as an apolitical and non-religious society and so to try to posit political sides onto the organisation would be misunderstanding them. As for the University Lodge, online information about their more recent activities is much more scarce.

We would be mistaken for focusing too much on just these two Lodges, as they are not the only ones associated with the college. The Trinity College Dublin Lodge London is another Lodge which was initially set up in 1906 for “alumni of Trinity College Dublin who lived or worked in London”. Their website reminds us of the current efforts by the Freemasons to avoid old tropes of secrecy, claiming: “If anyone thinks we are not open, they clearly haven’t been looking very hard!” It also criticises a felt discrimination by members for being Freemasons: “Some employers until recently used to ask whether staff were Freemasons, but would not dream of asking if they were gay, Jewish, left-handed or from an ethnic minority, of course.” 

Martin Humphrys, the Lodge’s Secretary, says that the Lodge is currently doing well, and that they held their most recent meeting on September 4 to “further a young mason on his masonic pathway”. These young Masons play an important part in the Lodge, with over 60% of its members under the age of 45. This was due in part to a university scheme to increase membership, necessary after the Lodge had struggled during the 90s. Another way they increased membership was by changing who could enter the Lodge: now it isn’t just for Trinity students, but anyone based in London “favourably disposed towards Ireland”. This change has been reflected in their membership, as of the sixty-four current members of the Lodge, only eight are Trinity alumni, along with three others who had relatives who attended the University. That is not to say the Lodge has lost its links to the college, as Humphrys wrote: “we try hard to keep in touch with what is going on at Trinity.” The Lodge aims to make a visit to Dublin every few years and also to dine in the College (in the 1592 room), and is hoping to do so next year. They have also recently made a donation to the Alumni Appeal which they hope will be used for the Library. They had made a similar gesture before in support of the Library for their centenary event as well. 

 “…we would’ve lost our house during the crash if it weren’t for them and I just couldn’t afford to study in Trinity if they weren’t there.” 

This focus on charity was another important aspect of the Lodge’s activity, and of Freemasonry in general. Humphrys commented that the Lodge tries to support causes which “have a basis in Ireland or Irish men and women living here in the UK”. They also contribute significantly to the Metropolitan Grand Lodge, which recently raised over two million pounds towards the purchase of a cyberknife in St Bartholomew’s Hospital London, and a further two and a half million pounds towards providing London with a second Air Ambulance. Currently, the appeal is looking to provide two fire tenders which will have the largest ladders in Europe. This would enable the firefighters to reach up twenty-five floors in the hopes of preparing London to fight high-rise fires in the future. 

When asked about criticisms faced by the Freemasons that its members receive preferential treatment over others, the egalitarian nature of their charity was emphasised. “The aim of Freemasonry is to help everyone not just the few,” Humphrys responded. He continued that someone looking for preferential treatment when joining the organisation, apart from feeling “bitterly disappointed” would also simply “not [be] the kind of person the organisation is looking to welcome into membership”. Humphrys spoke of the Freemasons’ ability to move swiftly to assist with any appeal in the case of international catastrophes, and in this way they can play a strong role in “supporting the whole community”.

While Masonic charity can indeed benefit international causes, so too can it help people closer to home. A Trinity student who currently receives annual grants from the Irish Freemasons agreed to comment on this for Trinity News, provided that he remain anonymous. The student claims if it was not for the Freemasons, he would not be able to study in Trinity. Of the two million euro raised by the Irish Freemasons for charity each year, seventy percent of that goes towards members in need. The grants received by this student are part of this, he explained: “My dad’s involved with the Freemasons and when he was diagnosed with his cancer, which put him out of work, they organised to help the family out.” The process of obtaining the grant was said to be much like that of a normal means tested student grant. “A lady came out to the house and had a chat with us about our situation, she took down a few things like our household income and everything like what other grants I’d be eligible for.” This was not some recruitment method where the student would have to swear his life to the Freemasons either, as apparently no other expectations were placed on him, “they only concerned themselves in how they can help us”. The student’s overall thoughts on the Freemasons were understandably grateful. “They’ve been really really generous and helpful with my family,” he said. “We would’ve lost our house during the crash if it weren’t for them and I just couldn’t afford to study in Trinity if they weren’t there.”

The role played by the Freemasons in Trinity is much more than just a matter of historical trivia, but is something that is very present and indeed essential as part of some students’ daily lives. A question arises as to equality if a student is receiving financial aid that another would not due to their having connections with this organisation. The Freemasons may respond that it is simply a matter of helping those in need, something they are keen to express is a central tenet of the fraternity. Another issue of equality the Freemasons are often criticised for is that theirs is a nearly exclusively male only group. The second ever Irish female Freemason joined in 2012, three hundred years after the first. Granted this, the Freemasons do not gender their charity, and have set up numerous schools around the world for the daughters of Freemasons no longer able to support their child. One such example was the Masonic Female Orphan School of Ireland, which operated between 1792 and 1970. The building currently used as The Clayton Hotel, Ballsbridge, was built for this school in 1882. Speaking to the Irish Times last year on the persisting gender imbalance among the organisation’s actual members though, Douglas Grey, the Irish Grand Master of the Freemasons did not see much changing anytime soon. Grey stated that “it’s a brotherhood,” and “currently there is no demand coming to us [for female members]”. Although the group appears eager to shed its negative connotations, equally it seems unwilling to part with some of its more archaic traditions.

Seán McElroy

Seán McElroy is a Staff Writer for Trinity News.